The Populist Road to Hell: Term Limits in California

There are all sorts of ironies in the term-limits movement that has swept the country in the past six years. The most obvious is that while Congress has been the prime target, it is the state legislatures that have (so far) taken the hit--some 20 states have imposed legislative term limits in the past six years, all but one through the initiative. And while generally regarded as populist, the term-limits cause in some states has depended on a few conservative deep pockets, such as Kansas oil billionaires Charles and David Koch. In California, the deep pockets were those of a conservative Los Angeles politician, Pete Schabarum, who recently retired after five years as a legislator and 19 years as a county supervisor--no term limits for him. Since the law prevented Schabarum from keeping for himself the $1 million-plus he still had in his campaign treasury, he decided he would use it to buy his fellow citizens a term-limits initiative.

Term limits were not, in other words, just the result of a wild round of coincidental dissatisfaction that happened to sweep every state that had the initiative in its constitution. The legislatures of Maine and California, Ohio and Idaho, Oklahoma and Michigan, didn't all turn into swamps of iniquity at the same time. But since qualifications for Congress, as the Supreme Court recently reaffirmed, are established in the Constitution--states cannot tinker with them. So it was the state legislatures that got hit and it's in the states that term limits have stuck.

Another source of irony, perhaps the most significant, is that just as term limits begin to bite, Congress is about to turn a vast range of highly complex social policies--welfare, Medicaid, food stamps--into block grants, transferring responsibility to those same state legislatures, many of which will no longer have senior members with more than six or eight years in office. And so by some strange working of the popular will, the country will take some of government's toughest decisions out of the hands of legislators with long experience and deliver them into the hands of amateurs.

California's recent experience may signal what we can expect: gridlock, bitter partisan hostility, and greater reliance on special interests for the expertise required to write complex legislation.




In November 1990, California became one of the first of the 20 states to adopt term limits--three two-year terms in a lifetime for the state Assembly, two four-year terms for the state Senate. And because its limits are among the most stringent, virtually all the state's legislators will be, as the phrase goes, "termed out" at the end of 1996. Thus California once again becomes the first major test of yet another grand plebiscitary experiment. The only other state where term limits kick in this year is Maine, which has a population equal to about 3 percent of California's and a part-time legislature with little professional staff. After the November 1996 election, none of California's 80 Assembly members will have had more than four years' experience. After the 1998 election, only a few of 40 state senators--those who were first elected in 1992--will have more than six.

So far the results aren't pretty. Contrary to the rosy predictions of such term-limits advocates as George Will, California has not entered a golden age of "civic republicanism." Nor has Proposition 140, the term-limits initiative, brought the state perceptibly closer to the "government of citizens representing their fellow citizens," which Schabarum promised voters in his ballot argument six years ago.

Nor has it done much, quoting the ballot argument again, to "remove the grip that vested interests have over the legislature [and] put an end to the Sacramento web of special favors and patronage." What it has done is send a new generation of politicians to Sacramento who are long on partisanship and painfully short on both legislative experience and policy background--and, worse, often seem not to care.

That's not to say that the proponents were all wrong. Because of term limits, the California Senate, one of whose members has been in public office since 1938, will cease to be what one legislator unkindly called "the geriatric ward of California." That presumably will be true in a lot of other states as well. High turnover may cause some legislatures to become more diverse in both gender and ethnicity, though that hasn't yet happened in California. It will become much harder for Assembly speakers or Senate presidents, none of whom is likely to serve more than two years, to accumulate either the power that their predecessors had or the dispensable political campaign funds on which much of that power was based. The personal arrogance and indifference of some long-term members may become a thing of the past.

But anyone looking for a new generation of citizen-legislators will probably look in vain. By general agreement, the 1995 session of the California legislature was probably the most mean-spirited and unproductive in memory, a unique combination of instability, bad behavior, political frenzy, and legislative paralysis. In the past year, California has had three Assembly speakers, two Republican Assembly leaders, two Republican Senate leaders, and six special elections, not counting runoffs. These included three recalls and there will almost certainly be more before the 1996 general election. In effect, we've witnessed an accelerating game of musical chairs prompted by the search of the nearly termed-out for jobs of longer and more secure tenure: as lobbyists, consultants, or academics, or in other public offices. That, in turn, has produced an almost continuous battle over the speakership and with it an unprecedented round of fratricidal vendettas stemming from the attempts of a group of clumsy and inexperienced Assembly Republicans to punish those who were insufficiently loyal to their caucus.

Subscribe to The American Prospect


A short reprise: In November of 1994, Republican Senator Marian Bergeson, a ten-year veteran of the legislature, knowing she must leave office by 1996, runs for, and wins, a seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, thereby setting up a special election in March that's won, after a runoff in June, by Republican Assemblyman Ross Johnson. This leaves a vacancy in the Assembly, prompting another special election, held in September. In the meantime, Republican Assemblyman Dick Mountjoy, who would have been termed out in 1996 and is looking for a place with more potential, has won a special election for the Senate seat vacated by Senator Frank Hill, who was removed from office in the summer of 1994 after his conviction on a bribery charge. But because of a closely divided Assembly, and a quirk in state law, Mountjoy delays giving up his Assembly seat even after his Senate victory so that he can cast his vote for a Republican speaker.

In the course of that maneuvering, the Republicans become so paranoid about the ability of the longtime Democratic speaker, Willie Brown, to outfox them that one of their members, a former sheriff's deputy named Larry Bowler, cuts the wires of the internal microphones in the caucus chamber where they meet out of fear that Democrats might be listening in. Eventually, in what Republicans call a coup, the Democrats, with the help of one Republican defector, Assemblyman Paul Horcher, oust Senator/Assemblyman Mountjoy from the Assembly and return Brown to the speaker's chair. Mountjoy's Assembly seat is thereupon filled in yet another special election.

In anger and revenge, Republicans organize a successful voter recall against the defecting Horcher, who is replaced by Assemblyman Gary Miller. The Republicans also organize a recall against Assemblyman Mike Machado, a Democrat, whom they accuse of breaking a promise not to vote for the Democratic speaker. That recall fails miserably, and Machado files an $800,000 claim with the state, not yet settled, under a law allowing public reimbursement of expenses to the survivor of a recall. In the meantime, Willie Brown, who also will be termed out in 1996 and is now running for mayor of San Francisco, steps down as speaker, but since Republican Assemblywoman Doris Allen is angry at the way she's been treated by the leaders of her caucus, she, like Horcher before her, refuses to vote for the Republican leader, Jim Brulte. (Also termed out, she seems to feel no fealty to her caucus.) Instead, she allows herself to be elected speaker of the nearly evenly divided house with the unanimous votes of the Democrats, plus her own vote, over the unanimous opposition of her Republican colleagues. Allen thus becomes the target of yet another GOP recall, which takes place in November 1995. By September, having succumbed to the harassment and invective of her GOP colleagues, she resigns the speakership, but not before she manages to describe them, in one very public statement, as "power-mongering males with short penises." It was that kind of year.




This chain of intrigue and conflict--and the resulting legislative gridlock and partisan hostility--would probably not have been half as severe had it not been for another development: a legislative redistricting by judicially appointed special masters after the 1990 census that so evenly divided districts that it was hard for either party to get undisputed control of the lower house. If we were living in a less ideologically unforgiving time or place, there might also have been more compromise and professional respect among the members.

But term limits themselves send the message that experience is not as important as ideological purity and faithful representation of the voters of one's district. Government, said Phil Isenberg, a pragmatic Democratic assemblyman and one of the legislature's most thoughtful members, who will himself be termed out in 1996, is not "like filling sandbags in the flood"--something that a citizen does on a temporary basis and then returns to normal life. During much of 1994, Willie Brown, who has been in the Assembly for more than 30 years and was its speaker for 15, tried to train a new generation of Democratic leaders--potential speakers, chairs of key committees, and all the rest. But the effort seems to have had only marginal success at best; no one who has been there four years or less has learned enough about California's complicated system of government. Under term limits, moreover, the payoff is so limited. Who wants to stay up all night learning brain surgery when he can only practice for two years? Therefore, Brown told Los Angeles Times reporter Daniel Weintraub, there is going to be no "central force, no central person, who is really responsible or accountable, everyone just doing their own little number." Next year, the fights among Democrats may become as fractious as those among Republicans.

The effects will be less severe in the Senate, with its eight-year limits and its complement of members who previously served in the Assembly--and still less true in states like Oklahoma, Nevada, and Utah, which have 12-year limits for each house of their legislatures, longer than the average term is now. "The legislative process is remarkably adaptable and resilient," writes Douglas G. Brown, the director of Colorado's Office of Legislative Legal Services, about the likely effects of reforms in that state. But he does not minimize the dangers: "Experienced members know that disagreement is the default position and agreement takes time and compromise and education to achieve. Experienced members can reason by analogy from previous experiences; new members will not know the lessons of the past."

Bill Lockyer, California's Senate president, puts it another way: New members arrive "convinced that those people (already in government) have screwed it all up: I'm going to fix it, whatever it is. [But after a while] people tend to meet smart people with different values . . . and they start to say 'Maybe I'm not absolutely right about this.'" With term limits, that is far less likely to happen.

What is certain, at least in California, is that term limits have increased instability and reduced legislative experience. Under the state's rigid limits, members begin looking for the next slot from the moment they arrive. The legislature has, in effect, become a bus station where some people have just arrived and others are waiting to leave, and as a result the institution itself does not elicit much loyalty or devotion. In the two-year period between the 1992 and 1994 elections, California had 12 special elections--that's 10 percent of all seats.

More than $10 million was spent on these races--more per race than the obscene amounts, now approaching a total of $80 million every two years, spent in regular legislative elections. In addition, it costs the taxpayers of each affected district an estimated $300,000 to $500,000 to run each of these special elections. We are probably already ahead of that pace in this cycle, though exact figures are not yet available, and since there are still 24 Assembly members and 12 senators who will be termed out by the end of this year, the cycle is far from over. The successful recall of Assemblyman Horcher cost the winners $400,000 and the losers $600,000. That's a little high for such a contest, but not extraordinary--and certainly not money that comes in $5 donations raised at neighborhood teas and clambakes. This year, for the first time, as California Common Cause director Ruth Holton observed, political candidates are holding fundraisers in Sacramento--which means that they're shaking down the special interests--even before they're elected.




It's too soon to know conclusively how all that will affect policy and the quality of government generally. There's little question that, as the sponsors of California's term limits promised, the flow of money, particularly to members of the Assembly, will be less subject to the control of a powerful speaker like Brown. There simply isn't time for anyone to develop the long-term relationships that Brown, for better or worse, managed with trial lawyers, public employee unions, land developers, and other major lobbies. The Assembly's speaker at the end of the 1995 session was a 32-year-old freshman Republican named Brian Setencich, a former professional basketball player in Europe, who had been in the legislature less than eight months and whose prior political experience was a few years on the Fresno City Council. For the same reason, it will also be hard for anyone to develop the clout to broker deals among various interest groups--which are now increasingly trying to work their own deals directly with individual members--or to keep caucus members in line.

That will make it even harder than it has recently been in California to hold votes together and enact any major legislation--indeed, to do anything that takes patient compromise and thus requires the luxury of time and a relatively stable group of bargainers. In the process, it's not only politically complex and divisive issues that have bogged down in California's fractured legislature. Even such matters as the two-thirds vote to place school construction bonds on the state ballot--a vote that was once routine for both Republicans and Democrats--have become increasingly insurmountable hurdles. This summer, for the second time in two years, no school bond measure was approved, despite the fact that California's classrooms are the most crowded and among the most dilapidated in America.

But the changing power relationships are only one element contributing to California's policy paralysis. What is at least as important is the declining level of policy experience that term limits foster and celebrate. The California legislature once had a highly professional staff, but the term-limits initiative also required a 40 percent reduction in legislative personnel and funding.

Here again is an example of unintended consequences. Most observers agree that for years there had been too many political hacks on legislative payrolls, men and women earning six-figure salaries and cushy pensions to organize fundraisers, staff campaigns, and talk to lobbyists. But the initiative did little to reduce the number of hacks who, in the constant search for money, are needed more than ever. The damage, rather, was done in the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's office, which studies and evaluates the fiscal effects of the budget and all money bills. The office lost 60 percent of its staff. The budget reductions also decimated the ranks of policy experts attached to various legislative committees--experts on budgeting, water law, taxation, environmental law, education, transportation, and all the rest--who, for the better part of a generation beginning in the mid-1960s, had made California's legislature a model of professionalism. Until 1990, someone from the Legislative Analyst's office appeared and testified at hearings on all major revenue and appropriations bills; after the office's budget was cut, that was no longer possible.

There also appears to have been a marked decline in the quality of the work done by committee policy staff, partly because they were shorthanded and partly because the new members seemed to care less. Previously, committee bill analyses were, for the most part, objective statements that laid out the arguments on a bill, pro and con, raised unanswered questions, and tried to suggest the likely effects. Now, they tend increasingly to be taken verbatim from the lobbyists pushing or opposing the measure, or simply from fantasy. That practice seems not to reflect corruption so much as the cult-politics mindset of people who fervently believe that if they hold the correct position on an issue no further information is required. They are not in Sacramento to govern; they are there to enact the agenda that they arrived with.

For example, analysis of a bill authorizing a bond issue to buy computers and other new technology for California schools--probably a dubious way of funding such inherently perishable improvements--cited "serious concerns . . . in the technology community regarding overuse of computers by young children. Scientific reports reveal that, as with TV, there is actual physiological damage and impairment to the areas of young children's brains which involve metaphorical thinking and other avenues to higher thinking skills." So far, no one has found those scientific reports, but since this analysis was written for a legislator who once announced that the Air Force had an official witch, no one really expected to. Because term limits leave everyone insecure, said one member, "this place has become a totally risk-averse environment, which is why you have so much stridency and so little achievement."

The winners from term limits will be, first, the lobbyists, who are never termed out; second, the governor and the executive branch, which still has budgeting and policymaking expertise; and, third, the bureaucrats, who will stay long after legislators go. Art Agnos, a former legislator and former mayor of San Francisco, now western regional director for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, recently remarked that the real effect of term limits is that "no one will be in office long enough to touch the bureaucrats. . . . They tell us political appointees--the politocrats--that while we're the A team, they're the B team: 'We be here when you come and we be here after you're gone.'"




California has been on a plebiscitary rampage since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978; term limits are not likely to be the end of the process. For most of the past two decades, and even before, the state has been going through a continuous cycle of reform and political frustration, with initiative after initiative imposing state and local tax limitations, spending limits, a formula for school spending, term limits, three strikes, and prohibiting public education and other services for illegal immigrants (currently blocked by the federal courts). Each initiative has put still more restrictions on the ability of elected officials--legislators, city councils, school boards, county supervisors--to make choices and set priorities. As each has made it harder for the legislature to function and more difficult for voters to comprehend the system--let alone know whom to hold accountable--yet another remedial ballot measure has sprouted from the resulting frustration. This, in turn, has further restricted the latitude of those who used to be called the people's representatives, which in turn has further exacerbated the impotence of the legislature and has reduced the accountability of those whom the voters elected.

The key was Proposition 13, which not only limited the local property tax but gave the state the power to allocate property tax revenues among counties, cities, schools, and thousands of special districts. It thus severely weakened local government and shifted power to a state government whose legislature was itself being hamstrung by a set of uncoordinated populist reforms. Equally important, Proposition 13 and the scores of bills and ballot measures that followed in its wake so divided accountability between the state and the locals (and often among various state and local agencies) that even the simplest things--how to get a new school built, for example--became virtually incomprehensible. As recently demonstrated in Los Angeles, the county or the school board slipping into bankruptcy points to Sacramento for reducing its funding; the state points to the local supervisors and their managers for failing to control mushrooming employee salaries and benefits.

They are both correct. In 20 years, California's state and local governments have become a sort of Rube Goldberg machine whose most important product may well be voter alienation. It's said, probably correctly, that only three people understand California school finance, and two of them are lobbyists. More obviously, the post-13 era has been marked by a steep slide in the quality and availability of the state's public services and a sharp rise in the kind of political corruption--sometimes indictable, sometimes not--that thrives in an increasingly unmanageable, demoralized, and unaccountable system. Since 1988, five California legislators, several staffers, and one prominent lobbyist have been convicted on federal bribery or similar charges.

Finally, there is the huge effect of the two-thirds vote that California, almost alone among the states, requires in each house of the legislature, not only for the enactment of any tax but, more important, for approval of the annual state budget and virtually every other sort of appropriation. That gives every determined political minority--from welfare Democrats to right-to-life Republicans--the power to extract concessions from the majority, both by blocking additional spending and, in times of stress, blocking desirable spending cuts. It's no coincidence that California's legislature is so often gridlocked for weeks or even months before it can agree on a budget. With the array of new political technologies--from direct mail to television to the Internet--that have evolved since Proposition 13, it's often easier for well-organized and well-heeled groups, on the left as well as the right, to use the initiative, once intended as the people's instrument, to write policy changes into law or into the budget than to get the legislative supermajority that the constitution requires. But it makes it almost impossible to set realistic annual budget priorities.


There is no space here to describe the inequities in tax and spending policies, the economic dislocations, and the other Alice-in-Wonderland policy distortions that this process has produced in the past two decades. In any number of places, property taxes on identical parcels in the same neighborhood are vastly different because one parcel was purchased recently (and thus reassessed), while the other has been in the same hands since 1978 and thus is carried on the rolls at 1975 values. And since local communities are now effectively precluded from taxing themselves to improve schools, California's per-pupil spending has declined from fifth or sixth in the nation to 42nd--a decline that started long before the recession that began in 1989. California is the state where accountability has become so entangled that the buck never stops and can never be traced.

Given that structural morass, the governmental inexperience that term limits produce can only exacerbate the difficulties of accomplishing anything. California Republicans have some hopes of gaining control of both houses of the state legislature in 1996--they now control one, more or less--but if they succeed, the thing they will learn first and foremost is how limited their ability is to accomplish anything substantial. The cycle of reform and frustration will go on.

Of course, California is unique in some of these things. But these days it is hardly alone in its search for quick constitutional fixes--balanced budget amendments, supermajority tax-enactment provisions, term limits and other autopilot mechanisms--in an effort to guarantee what never was and never will be: that government will do the right things without constant attention from a citizenry that seems to have less and less interest in, patience for, or attachment to, its institutions. The excesses and abuses of a distant, overprofessionalized government are legendary and need no further reiteration, but the alternative, in a world as complex as this one, is not some dreamy system of short-term amateurs. California is not so much apart as ahead, a cautionary tale that others ignore at their peril.

You may also like